I mentioned in a previous column that we all have a tendency to wear blinders about certain aspects of our jobs or businesses, usually that which we regard as uncomfortable or distasteful.  But sometimes we fail to see something because it is completely unthinkable.

 Let me share a recent message I received from a client (with her permission), who owns and runs a small company:

“Jennifer, if I wasn’t sure before what you meant about having blinders on, it is painfully clear to me now. I just lost the most senior member of my team. She quit very abruptly and unexpectedly, without any notice. I am devastated because I have known her a long time as a professional colleague – long before she came to work for me. I was so thrilled when she came on board, I put a lot of time and effort into training her. I literally taught her everything she knows about this business. She learned quickly and became very productive, independent, and successful. She was also extremely loyal, so I trusted her completely and took her into my confidence. She brought in so much business, I treated her like a partner.

“Looking back now, I realize I failed to see the signs. I was in denial. While I may have treated her like a partner, the fact is, she was not. Two years ago, she had asked to be made a partner. For personal and professional reasons at the time, I told her there was no way that could happen. She never brought up the issue again and continued to excel in her work, so I thought I everything was fine.

“To say that her departure is a setback is an understatement. On top of dealing with a sudden and significant loss of revenue, I now have to devote considerable energy to finding and training a new person. She was such an exemplary asset, replacing her could easily take a year or more. I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty shrewd business person, but I was naïve and ignorant. I thought it would go on forever.”

Every business owner or manager recognizes that a certain amount of employee turnover comes with the territory. Still, the sudden and unexpected departure of a person who is core to your company’s business is another matter altogether – particularly for smaller businesses. It does happen.

As you can imagine, my client is doing a lot of reflecting and processing. Not only has she identified the many signs she missed, but she’s also recognized mistakes she made as an employer, gleaning some corollary lessons to strengthen her management skills and business planning.

How might you know that a key person is thinking about moving on? Here are some of the signs:Spending a lot of time on the phone and on non-work-related issues.A change in attitude or even disinterest in the business, the company, or you. People become distant and not as engaged to avoid revealing too much.Not showing up for or constantly rescheduling meetings, taking a lot of time off, and/or being out of the office frequently, yet always having a plausible reason or excuse.A notable change of attire. They begin dressing very nicely and professionally a lot more often.Changes in their social media profiles, such as following other companies but not yours, or participating in industry-related activities that you should know about but don’t.

 Lessons learned for employers to take away:

 Discuss goals regularly—your company’s, yours, and your employees’—and have a plan in place to help employees grow professionally.  Most people want to advance and if they are not able to, you can be certain they will eventually move on. Everyone needs to do what is best for themselves. It’s not always about money, either. Are you doing everything you can to keep your key team members and employees happy? Are you valuing and nurturing them or are you taking them for granted? Checking their public social media profiles occasionally can be one good indicator. For one reason or another, my client had stopped discussing goals with a key contributor to her company’s success. In failing to recognize and address this individual’s desire for professional advancement, my client ultimately hurt herself.

 Clarify and firm up all agreements that affect your business. Make sure the ground rules and expectations about your business relationships are clearly articulated and mutually understood, whether through a formal contract or an informal agreement. Require a non-disclosure agreement for anyone who gains proprietary information or knowledge that could put your business at risk strategically or financially – employees, consultants, independent contractors, service providers, business partners – even people who attend company meetings or interview for jobs. Without a signed NDA in place, there is nothing to prevent or at least impose a grace period on a departing employee or former business partner using your company resources and doing business with your existing clients.

 Create a disaster recovery plan. Beyond new opportunities or more money, there are plenty of other life changes that lead to the sudden departure of key employees: illness, relocation, family changes, even death. Do you have relationships with consultants who can step in and fill the gaps? This should be part of your strategic workforce planning yet hardly any business does this.  And just as we all know the wisdom of keeping a well-stocked home emergency kit and stashing enough personal savings to cover 6-9 months of living expenses, consider banking several months of hiring expenses for your business.

 Never stop looking for good people to add to your team. Constantly be developing relationships with individuals you would want to bring into your fold, especially for strategic positions connected to your business’s core competencies. Don’t get complacent; keep working your connections the same way job candidates do. This is never wasted effort. Networking exposes you to new ideas and keeps you learning....

Jennifer Laxton is the president of ESA Consulting, located in Santa Rosa www.esa.com. ESA is a consulting company providing talent acquisition, workforce planning and career coaching services. You can reach her at 707-525-1010 or jklaxton@esa.com.